Mr. Speaker, on Thursday when this bill was last debated, I asked a question of one of the hon. members about the privacy implications that are included in the bill on human pathogens and toxins. I was not quite sure whether I got a full answer but I did ask what the disposition of the concerns were with regard to privacy. The indication was that there was a letter from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner responding to a couple of points.
That letter was written on March 11 and was sent to the chair of the Standing Committee on Health. To make a long story short, it appears that the health committee had arranged its affairs in order to look at the health implications of Bill C-11.
In Bill C-11, in clause 38(1) and some ancillary matters to do with the Privacy Act the Privacy Commissioner had indicated an interest to appear before the committee to discuss the concerns with the committee. In addition to the letter of March 11, there is a letter dated March 30. I may want to table both of them. In the letter, the Privacy Commissioner's office laid out the process it went through. There was some consultation with that office. They met with officials. They did not receive a privacy impact assessment. That is a critical element that is required to do a proper assessment of whether or not the activities related to the Privacy Act are going to be handled in a matter which is appropriate and also in a manner which does not conflict with other areas of the privacy legislation.
In going through these, the Privacy Commissioner's office had a couple of suggestions right off the bat, for instance, including the word “reasonableness”. It says, “the minister has the authority to order private personal information and confidential business information to be disclosed without limit and without any conditions, simply to order it to be”. That raised some concern in my mind. The Privacy Commissioner indicated there probably should be the normal wording that there was a test of reasonableness, that the minister should have reasonable cause to believe that this information was vital to the administration of the act.
That change was made. In fact, based on the written input of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, an amendment was made by the government at committee.
There was a subsequent letter, and a few other changes were proposed.
The reason I am rising is not with concern related to the health aspects, the safeguards that are being proposed in the bill to ensure the safety and security of human pathogens and toxins and those who have access to, custody of, or responsibility for them. My concerns relate to how this piece of legislation impacts on privacy rights of Canadians.
The member for Eglinton—Lawrence gave a wonderful speech last Thursday. Members may want to consult it to see more detail about the concerns that have been raised. I think that would be a very good place to start. I will not repeat the points made there, but the argument was made very clearly that there were some holes.
In fact, subsequent to the March 11 letter, based on which some government amendments were made, the letter dated March 30 I think was written on same day the committee did its clause-by-clause study and passed the bill and sent it back to the House. I did not get a chance even to read this letter, for the members' edification, and I am pretty sure that the members probably received or at least were advised of the letter of March 11. I am pretty sure, also, that when the members voted on the bill clause by clause they were not even aware of the March 30 letter.
That raises a very significant problem with regard to the manner in which the committee conducted its affairs. The members of the committee were not apprised of relevant information to do with that on a matter which did not even have a witness before it for them to even make the necessary enquiries. This raises some concerns about whether or not that committee discharged its responsibilities in a fashion which is expected by the House. That is a matter the committee members may want to review as a committee.
It also raises the issue that should the other items incorporated in the letter of March 30 from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner raise substantive items, and I believe they are substantive, it puts us in a situation where, very quickly, somebody had to decide whether we do something about this. There are a couple of ways to deal with it. One way would be to make a motion to send this bill back to the health committee. That process requires that we identify the specific clause or clauses for reconsideration. I am prepared to do that, but I am not sure whether it would get the support of the House because the details are not there. For all the members having to deal with this, the details are not there.
I hope the government members, the government House leader and the government whip will consider the options. One is to send the bill back to committee to hear a witness who knows what he or she is talking about when it comes to protecting the privacy rights of Canadians. The second option would be to say that we do not have much choice, and if we cannot send it back to committee, we will have to either defeat the bill or pass it. I think it is unlikely that the members will want to defeat this bill. It is an important bill in that we are dealing with health implications here.
However, in my view, there are some changes that are necessary with regard to the Privacy Act implications. A privacy impact assessment was not, and has not been, provided to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner to enable it to give an informed opinion on whether or not the scope and the intent of the content of the legislation as it stands now are compatible with our obligations to protect privacy rights.
In the absence of the option of defeating the bill, I would suggest we have to pass it. That means this bill would go to the Senate. There is no doubt in my mind that the Senate does good work on legislation review. The Senate would look at the speeches of the day. It would look at the speech given by the member for Eglinton—Lawrence and see that some very serious questions have been raised. The member quoted extensively from both letters. If that is the case, it is my view that the problems in Bill C-11 as they currently exist are such that the Senate may have no choice but to make amendments to the bill and send it back to the House. Then we could send it back to committee for the committee to hear a witness and to fix the bill and then bring it back to the House and go through the process. It would be much more extensive.
I am calling out right now, in the middle of my speech, to the government House leader, to the whip, to the health critic, to the parliamentary secretary and to the Minister of Health to have a quick look at the situation. If they agree that this is the best opportunity for us to repair this bill, then a motion should come forward by a member speaking to this bill at this time to send the bill back to committee with regard to clause 38 and the clauses to which it relates. That is the reason I am rising, to ask the government to quickly consider the options before us.
I think the fastest route is to revert to committee to look at the matters, to consult with the Privacy Commissioner, not by exchanging a letter but by having representatives from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner appear.
It is a very substantive portion of this bill. It means that disclosure of personal information and confidential business information, not only of a person who has access or custody or responsibilities for human toxins or pathogens, the bill is so broad it could also lead to the disclosure of information about the person's family members. On top of this, the bill also allows this information to be shared with foreign governments.
One of the key issues the commissioner raised in this letter was what she termed “anonymize” the information about those who have custody or access or responsibilities related to human pathogens or toxins. That would mean instead of having the person's name disclosed to those it is necessary to disclose to so that we have the tools necessary to properly administer Bill C-11, it would not put on the record tes person's name, personal information, family's information, confidential business information or anything else it would dig up without explanation, limits or conditions on the minister.
The reason it just twigged with me is that I happen to be the chair of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. The Privacy Act comes under my committee's purview. We meet with the the Privacy Commissioner regularly. We are now working on some quick fixes to the Privacy Act, because it has not been touched in over 25 years.
These are important issues, and if we allow another bill to compromise the privacy rights of Canadians and effectively undermine the intent of the Privacy Act, then we have a ripple effect. It is not right.
I want to highlight a couple of things in the letter of March 30, which I do not believe the committee members even saw. It was sent directly to the chair of the committee. It would have been very difficult to have it go through the process of going through the parliamentary secretary and the government officials for health, maybe even the health minister, and then to distribute it to the committee members, who are entitled to get copies of all correspondence related to the matter before them.
In this case the assistant privacy commissioner actually signed the letter, thanking the committee for including some of the suggestions they had. They said there seemed to be a preliminary exchange of emails between the Public Health Agency of Canada and some of their officials. That was in May 2008. It was almost a year ago that they were talking about this. The privacy officials, the Privacy Commissioner, and Dr. Butler's agency, the PHAC, were aware of this.
It causes me great concern. If the Ministry of Health and the Public Health Agency of Canada, the PHAC, were aware of these items, these concerns on the Privacy Act, and still put forward a bill to the House of Commons that did not take into account the substantive concerns that the Privacy Commissioner had, it causes me grave concern. Somehow the system failed the House of Commons. Or, there is a reason. I am not going to speculate on whether someone wanted to pass by the input of the office of the Privacy Commissioner or pass by the prior consultations from almost a year ago with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
This is serious. Something has gone wrong in the operation of the committee, in the drafting of legislation, in the circulation of correspondence, and in the assessment, getting a privacy impact assessment so that the Privacy Commissioner could actually do the job.
It does say, “...we did not have many details and did not receive materials other than what was then Bill C-54, at that time”. That was the bill from the last Parliament.
That is all they received. How could we expect the Privacy Commissioner to do her job when there is no consultation and no communication with her on this bill specifically, until afterwards, where someone somehow picks up on a couple of items?
This involves two acts. One is the Privacy Act, which has the oversight with regard to the government departments, but also there is the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act; it is referred to as PIPEDA. These two acts together are related, and they are involved in this matter. It is not straightforward.
The letter goes on to say:
We recognize that the intent of the legislation is to deal with the personal information of laboratory workers; however, we still have concerns that there is nothing in the Bill to restrict the collection of ancillary personal information, such as patient information.
We are getting into areas that are so sensitive.
Another ancillary collection could be personal information about a laboratory worker's family members, should they come into contact with a regulated pathogen or toxin. As well, we are aware of the potential for function creep and would therefore prefer to limit the collection of personal information.
It goes on to say:
We look forward to these issues being addressed in the privacy risk assessment work to come.
They still have not received the privacy impact assessment. That is the tool, the approach in which we look at the implications to the Privacy Act of any legislation that touches on it. There is a protocol to go through here. It is the way we do our business, because Lord knows that members of Parliament cannot be experts in every statute we have responsibility for.
We have a responsibility to make sure that the work is done. We second the responsibility for the detailed knowledge, the day-to-day knowledge, to the people who work on it in the departments, in the agencies, we have established to do this.
But the matter has not come forward. It did not come forward to the committee. It did not come forward to the House. It was not disclosed by the parliamentary secretary in his speech. It was not disclosed by the minister at any point. No release. No information. We have done a very, very poor job as the House. It is a reflection on all of us.
However, we now have an opportunity. We have identified a potential problem here. It may be nothing. I may be wrong, but the Privacy Commissioner does not think so.
I believe the best course of action is to remedy the concerns that have been raised in the letter of March 30 by the commissioner, to ensure we learn from this example, to ensure that legislation, before it is signed off by all of the cabinet, that members did their due diligence. Did they check off on every piece of information? We have the formal checklist. Are they representing that this is constitutional, that it does not contradict any other laws of Canada, that it follows the model or the protocols we have established to make sure our bills and statutes work?
We also have a grave concern about the regulations. Bill C-11 requires substantive regulations. But if there is no consultation on the bill, I am not sure we will see any consultation related to privacy when the regulations are drafted and gazetted and promulgated.
One of the other areas is clause 67. It says that this may “diminish controls over personal information”. I guess that is the point of all this.
Having said that, I would like the unanimous consent of the House to table photocopies of both letters to the chair of the Standing Committee on Health: one dated March 11, one dated March 30, both in relation to Bill C-11.